Vacant Lot Turned Urban Farm Transforms Community, Increases Food Access

The Growing Experience Photo Credit: Maria Hsin

The Growing Experience (TGE) is a seven-acre urban farm in North Long Beach that is located on a previously vacant lot. Photo Credit: Maria Hsin

On a recent Friday morning, eggs, figs and other vegetables and fruits were being placed on the back of a small truck destined to be sold at a farm stand in the parking lot outside of the Senior housing block in the Carmelitos Public Housing Community in Long Beach, CA. The produce was grown on site at The Growing Experience (TGE), a seven-acre urban farm in North Long Beach that is located on a previously vacant lot that is part of the same housing complex.  

The TGE urban farm is unique in that it is owned and operated by the Housing Authority of the County of Los Angeles (HACoLA), which manages 3,229 units of public and other affordable housing for the county’s Public Housing program. Read more

OHG’s Megan Penn to Discuss Community Development in Local Food Systems at Grow Local OC Conference

Megan Penn, co-founder and executive director of Orange Home Grown will be speaking about community development and local food systems at the upcoming Grow Local OC Conference on Nov. 10-11 at Cal State University, Fullerton.

Megan Penn, co-founder and executive director of Orange Home Grown will be speaking about community development and local food systems at the upcoming Grow Local OC Conference on Nov. 10-11 at Cal State University, Fullerton.

The Grow Local OC Conference: The Future of Urban Food Systems slated for Nov. 10 – 11 at Cal State University, Fullerton is excited to announce that Megan Penn, co-founder and executive director of Orange Home Grown Inc. will speak to conference goers on the community development benefits of supporting a local food system in Orange County.

As a co-founder of Orange Home Grown Inc., which started in 2009, Megan is passionate about providing access to locally grown food, working to improve the local food system through education, and developing opportunities that create “community” here in Orange County.

Orange Home Grown Farmers & Artisans Market is the lone farmers’ market in the City of Orange, and despite its success over the past seven years, Penn and her co-founders realized that so much more could and needed to be done to strengthen the local food system in city.

“The farmers’ market was not enough,” she told Grow Local OC.

More community involvement was needed, and this realization led to the natural evolution into Orange Home Grown, which focuses on education, collaboration, camaraderie, advocacy and more.

Among Orange Home Grown’s numerous initiatives is a new seed lending library, in partnership with the City of Orange Public Library. It launched on March 19, and offers free seeds to participants. The expectation is that seed borrowers will replace the seeds with new seeds resulting from their harvest.

Another project that the organization recently launched is a community farm, the OHG Education Farm, the first of its kind in Orange. Orange Home Grown is partnering with Chapman University in this endeavor.

According to OHG’s website, the purpose of the OHG Education Farm is to create education around the local food system. As residents seek to have more input into how their food is grown, how it is treated after being harvested, and how it moves from one place along the food route to another, this community urban farm becomes a means to increase access to education around locally grown food and a way of reintroducing the public to the many aspects of food that we have lost as a culture.

Fruits, vegetables, flowers, and herbs produced from the education farm may be donated or sold to local Orange restaurants, sold at the OHG Farmers & Artisans Market, or sold to schools for use in their lunch program.

To hear Megan speak and to learn more about Orange Home Grown’s effort to build community by fostering a robust local food system in Orange County, register now for the upcoming Grow Local OC Conference: The Future of Urban Food Systems set to take place on Nov. 10-11 at Cal State University, Fullerton.

Building Communities through Gardening

The Manzanita Street Community Garden in Los Angeles, CA. Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Community Garden Council.

The Manzanita Street Community Garden in Los Angeles, CA. Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Community Garden Council.

In a city of concrete that seems to extend forever, where every vacant lot looks destined for development, a patch of green is a welcome sight. Julie Beals, executive director of the Los Angeles Community Garden Council (LACGC) describes the response of residents of an East Hollywood neighborhood when they heard of plans for a community garden. “I had an older man break down in tears when I told him because they just expect the empty lot to be turned into a big apartment building.” She adds that in really dense neighborhoods people are thrilled when they find out they’re getting a community garden.

Speaking of the LACGC’s mission, Julie says, “We see ourselves as primarily community builders and we do that through gardening – it’s a way of bringing neighbors together, often for the first time.” The organization also encourages classes and programming in the gardens so that it’s more interactive and social. It’s not unusual for her to hear people say, “I lived here ten years, I never knew my neighbors and then I got a garden plot and now I know the people in this neighborhood.” Read more

Q&A: Mark Lowry on the Importance of Fresh Fruits and Vegetables and Local Food Production for OC Food Bank

Mark Lowry, director of the OC Food Bank, a program of the Community Action Partnership of Orange County. Photo Courtesy of OC Food Bank.

Mark Lowry, director of the OC Food Bank, a program of the Community Action Partnership of Orange County. Photo Courtesy of OC Food Bank.

Mark Lowry, director of the OC Food Bank in Garden Grove, California, runs the Food Bank like his life depends on it. That’s probably because Lowry knows how important a well-stocked food bank is for low-income and food deprived community members in Orange County.

Lowry and OC Food Bank,a program of the Community Action Partnership of Orange County (CAPOC), work with nearly 400 local charities, soup kitchens, and community organizations to end hunger and malnutrition in the county. Annually, the OC Food Bank distributes more than 20 million pounds of donated food, USDA commodities, and purchased food to non-profit agencies in Orange County that serve low-income families and individuals.

Grow Local OC recently had the pleasure of speaking to Lowry about the state of the OC Food Bank, its growing reliance on and distribution of fresh and local produce, the importance of statewide and local Orange County partnerships in strengthening the food bank, and more!

Grow Local OC: What is the current state of the OC Food Bank? What challenges and opportunities are you encountering?

Mark Lowry: At the OC Food Bank, and food banks all across America, there’s been a decrease in the donation of canned and dry goods. In the past, we often got something from a food manufacturer, wholesaler, or distributor because someone made a mistake in manufacturing, etc. Over time, businesses have become better at doing what they are supposed to do—become more efficient. There have been fewer of those mistakes that turn into donations. At about the same time, the secondary food market increased—goods that sit on a shelf at a mainstream supermarket get pulled and sent to grocery store outlets, etc.—in the past, those products would have gone to food banks.

But in California and at our Food Bank, we’ve been focused on getting more fresh fruits and vegetables. That is a response to the decline of canned and dried good donations. The state produces 60 percent of America’s fresh fruit and vegetables. We’re working with the California Association of Food Banks and have developed an effective program for providing a more consistent supply of fresh fruits and vegetables throughout the state.

Grow Local OC: What impact do food banks have on regional and local food systems, and farmers?

Mark Lowry: Food banks for major and minor producers are an outlet for surplus.

The California Association of Food Banks established the Farm to Family program eight years ago. The Association began visiting farmers throughout California. Farmers had long donated their surplus, but the Food Bank Association proposed to build a system where food banks would have consistent access to fruits and vegetables. The farmers were interested, but wanted some money for their work because sometimes, farmers would leave produce in their fields if it didn’t meet industry specs. So, they’d have to pay a crew to go back and pick the #2s. Or maybe the farmers were already picking the #2s, but selling those to the pie filling, juice, or jam and jelly people. The farmers were happy to sell produce to the Association, but for a modest price—usually that averages two-12 cents a pound.

Now there is a large program that allows food banks like ours to order based on California’s harvest season. While it costs food banks an amount of money, it also creates jobs. Some farm workers are going back to their fields and picking up stuff that wouldn’t have been picked. And in some cases, the goods would have been discarded and are diverted from the waste stream.

Seedstock: Can you tell us about any statewide and local partnerships that help support the OC Food Bank?

Mark Lowry: Statewide, we work with the California Association of Food Banks. It has helped develop the Farm to Family program. Initially, we focused on fresh fruits and vegetables. But we’ve recognized a couple things: California’s agricultural industry is much bigger than fresh fruits and vegetables. They are looking to expand to include things like eggs.

Locally, we’ve got some great partners. One is A.G. Kawamura, a third-generation, Orange County, Japanese-American farmer. He’s a great leader in progressive agricultural practices. He is the co-owner of Orange County Produce, along with his brother, Matt Kawamura. They’ve done many things, but here’s one example.

Kawamura wanted to build a community farm in the City of Irvine on a parcel of land that the city had. They said the land wasn’t zoned for agricultural use. He came back with a counterproposal called the Incredible Edible Park. He would build a park, but everything in that park would be edible. It was relocated about two years ago, but for many years, in Irvine, there’s been the Incredible Edible Park.

Also in Irvine: the city took over the closed, 4,800-acre El Toro Marine Air Station. We met with the chairman of the Orange County Great Park board of directors to discuss the issue of hunger in the community. Also, before the facility was a military base, it had been a farm 75-80 years ago. Returning some of that land to its original agricultural use had historic appeal. The chairman of the board said they’d set aside some acres for permanent agricultural use to honor Orange County’s agricultural heritage. We proposed to make some acreage available to a local farmer. It would be free or substantially below market rate in exchange for an agreement that the farmer would provide a percentage of every harvest to the Food Bank. Over the last seven years, we’ve received millions of pounds of produce grown at the Great Park in Irvine thanks to that commitment.

Another partner is the Orange County Sheriff’s Department. One detention site they run is the Musick Honor Farm. It had been involved in the production of fresh fruit and vegetables, poultry, and livestock for decades but around 2009, the country decided it couldn’t continue to operate the farm. The detention facility remained, inmates were housed there, but they shut down the farming operation. A few years down the road, we became aware of that. We invited the sheriff to come to the Food Bank and had a conversation with her about the needs of the community. She quickly said they’d restart the farming operation. They’re farming 12 acres now. We hope to increase that over time. It’s got myriad benefits: inmates get the opportunity to be out in the fresh air and stay productive. Also, the inmates know the produce goes to low income families in Orange County. In many cases, those are their families or families from their communities. That’s something they have pride in.

We use these examples to start conversations with potential partners. We’ve been having conversations with Southern California Edison for some time. They’ve got a lot of property. So, we’re talking to Edison to access some of their properties for some small, local farming operations.

We’ve also made a proposal that concerns the Fairview hospital in Costa Mesa. It was built to house 4,000 disabled persons but now houses 200. Nationally there’s been a trend against mass housing—to integrate people in communities and group homes. The state of California wants to shut down these massive mental hospitals—that land will be repurposed. We’ve already gone to the city of Costa Mesa and to the state and have asked for some acreage for a local farming operation. That doesn’t mean we’ll get it, but we’ve included our request. We’re hoping to at least get five acres. Also: the hospital plans to build a little village for people who remain there. There’s a program called AgrAbility, which integrates disabled persons into agricultural production. We’d like to help integrate this into being part of the therapy.

Grow Local OC: What’s your goal for the OC Food Bank in the coming years?

Mark Lowry: More partnerships. We’ve had some great success in transforming parcels of idle land into productive use. We want to identify new partners that have idle land. Some of those projects may be little and some could be large in scope. But you can’t drive through our community without finding vacant lots. For example, there’s a company that’s been very supportive of the Food Bank—a very progressive company—that is moving to a 14-acre facility that has a lot of surplus land. And there’s a local meat manufacturer that has a normal, run-of-the-mill lawn in front of its building—we’ve met with them a few times and told them we’d like to put in a community garden here.

Everything from partnering with local businesses and helping them build small parcels, to working on projects like the Fairview hospital. We’ve done it before—we’ve proven the concept can be done—and we use those projects as success stories to go to others to identify those farmer/partners, too.


Mark Lowry will also be participating in the upcoming Grow Local OC Conference on November 10-11, 2016 at Cal State Fullerton. To hear him speak about food access, food bank farms and more, click here:

Where Once a Revivalist Tent Stood, An Educational Community Farm Rises

Gospel Swamp Farm, located at the Heritage Museum of Orange County in Santa Ana, is a working farm focusing on education. (photo courtesy Jose Mendoza/Gospel Swamp Farm)

Gospel Swamp Farm, located at the Heritage Museum of Orange County in Santa Ana, is a working farm focusing on education. (photo courtesy Jose Mendoza/Gospel Swamp Farm)

On ground where a revivalist tent once stood, Orange County’s agricultural heritage is being resurrected in the form of an emerging community farm that grows over 40 varieties of fruits and vegetables from chocolate cherry heirloom tomatoes and chard to kale and strawberries.

The farm, situated on the property of the Heritage Museum of Orange County, goes by the name, Gospel Swamp Farm. The name pays homage to not only the land’s tent revivalist roots, but also to the fact that it is situated amidst a rare remnant Orange County swamp land that is aptly called Gospel Swamp.

Today, most of Orange County is developed and many residents don’t even have a sense of the region’s agricultural history, much less what the land looked like prior to the planting of thousands of citrus trees.

Wanting to teach Heritage Museum visitors about Orange County’s agricultural history, former director of agricultural programs Patrick Mitchell worked to make the farm a centerpiece of the museum’s offerings. Mitchell has moved on, and director of volunteer programs Jose Mendoza now manages the operation.

One of Gospel Swamp Farm’s main purposes, according to Mendoza, is education. Learning opportunities for students of all ages focus on sustainable agriculture, ecology, habitat restoration, and more. He says the farm’s urban setting and the fact that it’s located at a museum boosts its educational offerings to many visitors. A key objective is reestablishing a connection between people and what they eat.

“We want people to understand where their food comes from,” says Mendoza.

The farm values education for people of all ages, including children.

“There’s a children’s garden onsite—we want to grow things that kids can see, touch, smell, feel and taste,” Mendoza says.

Students from Santa Ana College and Irvine Valley College also help with and learn about composting. College students, high school students and an array of other volunteers gain knowledge of and utilize organic farming techniques as they produce more than 40 kinds of fruits, vegetables and herbs. After harvest, produce is sold at the Downtown Santa Ana Farmers’ Market.

The types of fruits and vegetables grown at Gospel Swamp Farm vary each year. Last year the farm produced several types of cherry tomatoes, including the Chocolate Cherry heirloom varietal. This year, crops comprise strawberries, carrots, corn, potatoes, kale, and various herbs. All produce is grown as organically as possible.

“We have an organic philosophy but we’re not certified-organic,” Mendoza says.

Gospel Swamp Farm depends on the help it gets from volunteers, who supply seeds and take over certain projects. And among the advantages of volunteering at Gospel Swamp Farm is the privilege of eating fruits and vegetables grown there.

“Volunteers benefit from the perk of taking stuff home,” says Mendoza. “This is encouraged.”

While Mendoza does not feel that Gospel Swamp Farm directly impacts the local food system in Orange County, he sees the possibility for wider influence in the future.

“We see potential for a role in the local food system with groups we are affiliated with. The key could be serving as a hub for community gardens in Santa Ana and Orange County,” he says. “We’re doing our own things at the moment—we’re doing our best to make it a place for people to visit.”

Looking ahead, Mendoza would like the farm to showcase fruits and vegetables that are representative of Orange County’s many cultures.

“I had the idea of separate raised beds for different regions in Mexico and the world to reflect Orange County’s diversity,” Mendoza says. “That way people could grow what they would grow in their home countries.”

Mendoza would also like to expand the farm’s educational outreach.

Gospel Swamp Farm is supported by people who donate money and equipment, and the money it makes from selling at the Downtown Santa Ana Farmers’ Market is spent on farm-related expenses.

Community Garden Rises in Stanton to Bolster Health Outcomes and Increase Food Access

Volunteers work at the Stanton Community Garden located in Stanton, California. (photo courtesy Lisa Wagner/Orange County United Way)

Volunteers work at the Stanton Community Garden located in Stanton, California. (photo courtesy Lisa Wagner/Orange County United Way)

A desire for better health outcomes among Orange County’s youth population was one of the main drivers for the development of the Stanton Community Garden.

“We want to increase the number of healthy children in Orange County,” says Orange County United Way volunteer engagement manager Kautrina Morgan. “That’s the big picture.”

The City of Stanton is somewhat of a food desert, according to Morgan. She says the western Orange County city has its share of liquor stores, and that the obesity rate of its residents is high.

The new community garden, a collaboration between the City of Stanton, Orange County United Way, and Community Action Partnership of Orange County, directly addresses these problems by putting land to good use, producing healthy food, and combating obesity through nutrition and food education, she says. Read more

Orange Home Grown Goes Beyond Farmers Market Roots to Spread Local Food & Ag Education in OC

“In Orange County, the local food system is not good at all—it’s behind the times,” says Megan Penn, co-founder and executive director of Orange Home Grown. Penn and the organization she leads are working hard to remedy that.

Change is happening, says Penn, who believes that “food is the essence of everything.”

Penn was raised in the City of Orange, but it was not until she went to college at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo that her eyes were truly opened to the wonders of local and sustainable food and agriculture.

“There was a fabulous farmers’ market which was part of my college life,” she says.

Upon returning to the City of Orange, however, Penn noticed the lack of farmers’ markets and locally-produced food.

“My friends and neighbors felt the same way,” she says. Read more

OC Food System Case Study: Control Air Community Farm Utilizes Aquaponics to Grow Food for Community

aaron flora renewable farms aquaponicsOn a small patch of land nestled in between a busy street, an elementary school, and a row of houses sits a quiet farm that is making big waves in Orange County sustainability. Inside the farm you’ll find rows of arugula, basil, and other crops in raised plant beds connected to tanks of tilapia. It also uses minimal water to operate and produces over 2,000 pounds of food for underserved residents. It’s the Control Air Community Farm in Anaheim, a project of Renewable Farms. It is an aquaponics farm, a farming system that combines elements of aquaculture and hydroponics and it just might be the future of sustainable agriculture. Read more